Help ma boab! It’s Oor Wullie – the musical!

Oor Wullie

Dundee Rep

Three stars

Until January 5;

then touring until March 14, 2020

Rapunzel: A Hair-braiding Adventure

MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Four stars

Until December 31


It’s more than three years since Andrew Panton (now Dundee Rep’s artistic director) directed a disappointing stage musical based upon Scotland’s famous cartoon family The Broons. Now Panton returns to the fictional town of Auchenshoogle to bring us a musical adaptation, written by Scott Gilmour (book and lyrics) and Claire McKenzie (music), of the cartoon strips starring the town’s most famous son, Oor Wullie.

The play (produced by Dundee Rep and touring theatre specialists Selladoor) opens, not in Wullie’s couthie Auchenshoogle, but in a very strange version of contemporary Caledonia. Wahid (a Scots-Asian boy, born in Greenock) lives in an unnamed town that appears to be populated, primarily, by racist numbskulls.

In the opening scenes of the show, everyone, from a tactless newsagent, to a group of obnoxious schoolkids and, even, the patronising headteacher (played by the ever-excellent Irene Macdougall) treat Wahid as if he’s just arrived from Mars or, worse, is their enemy in an imminent race war. Thank goodness, then, for the school librarian (played by the superb George Drennan), who seems to be the only local who isn’t deeply racist. He it is who introduces Wahid to Oor Wullie, courtesy of one of the legendary annuals.

If the play’s initial, well-intended racial politics exhibit all the subtlety of a disgruntled rhinoceros, the central conceit of Gilmour’s plot is also less-than-convincing. By reading the Oor Wullie annual, Wahid opens a time warp, whereby Wullie takes Wahid back in time to Auchenshoogle.

Cue an adventure in which Wahid, Wullie and the famous gang of 10-year-olds, including the intrepid Primrose, are in hot pursuit of the feminised Basher McKenzie. Basher has nicked Wullie’s famous bucket, which, inexplicably, gives her the power to take over the cartoon strip and dictate the lives of its characters.

This is convoluted and unconvincing stuff (not least when Gilmour goes all Scooby-Doo on us with his freaky steelworks ending). In fairness, there is some neat comic writing (particularly for policeman PC Murdoch, who is played hilariously by a moustachioed Ann Louise Ross). However, such moments are not enough to save the script from its own conceptual awkwardness.

Thank goodness, then, for a lovely score, with some catchy tunes and rip roaring songs by Claire McKenzie. Ranging from West End musical-style numbers, to contemporary pop music and, even, gospel, McKenzie draws on an impressively varied palette. There’s tremendous humour in some of the lyrics; such as the song Help Ma Boab!, in which Wullie bemoans his plight after being grounded by Maw.

The child characters enjoy fine performances across the board, from Eklovey Kashyap’s charmingly innocent Wahid to Leanne Traynor’s wonderfully radge Basher. Wullie himself is played (on designer Kenneth MacLeod’s appropriately cartoonish, but often unwieldy set) with tremendous energy by Martin Quinn; even if he is characterised as a spoilt cry baby, rather than the lovable prankster we all know.

The star of the show, however, is Leah Byrne, who gives a standout performance as the valiant Primrose. Strident, likable and strong-voiced, she would, surely, win any vote to become leader of the gang.

The undisputed leader of the gang in the MacRobert Arts Centre’s pantomime Rapunzel: A Haird-Braiding Adventure is hair salon owner Dolly Mixture (aka panto writer, director and performer extraordinaire Johnny McKnight). Typically of McKnight’s tongue-in-cheek Christmas creations, we find poor Rapunzel imprisoned in a tower in the lurid corner of the pantosphere known as Stirling Stella. Stolen at birth by the nasty witch Gothel (Helen McAlpine on characteristically high-octane form), the long-haired heroine’s locks (somehow) have anti-ageing properties that restore the decrepit sorceress to youthful vigour.

This sounds, of course, like a case for a dashing aristocrat, and so it proves when the vain, pop-culture obsessed Prince Rocco (the gorgeously ironic Keith McLeish) turns up. Assisted by Dolly and her fabulously glaikit son, Tenpee Mixture (the gloriously funny, comically ad-libbing Robert Jack), Rocco charges about the neon landscape in search of love.

As ever with McKnight’s Stirling pantos, the daft action is carried along by pop songs and the performing talents of young, local musical theatre stars of the future. Inevitably, there are moments of audience participation aplenty (pity the man that McKnight’s camp-as-Christmas dame takes a shine to!).

The splendidly named Betty Valencia gives a sparkling and spirited performance as Rapunzel, while Katie Barnett impresses as Goonifer, Prince Rocco’s besotted, emotionally neglected servant. Needless to say, designer Kenneth MacLeod (for it is he) has provided a suitably garish set to accompany the brilliantly outrageous costume designs (think Madonna designed by Haribo) by McKnight’s fabulous, longstanding partner-in-crime Alison Brown.

McKnight’s capacity to create pantomimes that entertain children and adults equally and simultaneously never fails to impress. This Rapunzel is up there with the best of his Yuletide offerings.

For tour dates for Oor Wullie, visit: